Beastly Transport #1: War Baby (Bishopstone station, East Sussex, UK)

I knew this would happen.

The world of transport writing is such that most of us who do it have a degree of cynicism about us. There’s only so many times you can watch a government u-turn over rail franchising policy, or hear about a “new” transport investment which has already been announced several times before, or witness the launch of a feasibility study into something that has already been implemented extensively in other countries around the world, before you get slightly less positive than you might like to be.

And I knew that before long someone, instead of suggesting a good subject for the beauty of transport, would instead suggest that I look at the opposite. But on the grounds that you can learn as much from bad practice as you can from good, and that even the ugly bits of transport sometimes have interesting histories, I present the first in an occasional series of “beastly transport”, celebrating the dismal, the dirty, the scary, the uncomfortable, the incomprehensible, and the pointless. For the first in the series, it’s a trip to the seaside, and Bishopstone railway station in East Sussex, UK.

Says a friend: “Visually, it always reminds me of a World War 2 submachine gun nest on a Normandy cliff. The ambience is even worse – and that’s being nice about it.”

Here’s the photo then:

Terry Jones [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Terry Jones [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s a bit of shocker, isn’t it? And bear in mind that sunlight always flatters a building. Imagine the station during a thunderstorm, silhouetted against a slate-dark sky by a jagged fork of lightning…

On the branch line to the coastal town of Seaford, and just metres away from the coastline itself, Bishopstone station was built in 1936 to serve a housing estate at the west end of Seaford. It was built by the Guildhall Development Company in the Southern Railway’s pre-war Art Deco ‘Odeon style’ (subject of an upcoming blog entry), and although unstated would have been by the Southern Railway’s then architect James Robb Scott. The double height ticket hall has an octagonal plan, which is unusual but not unknown – the Southern Railway also built an octagonal building at Hastings, which has since been lost. But the addition of what look for all the world like gun emplacements on the roof lends a very unsettling quality to the building.

For such a scary-looking building, it is perhaps surprising to find that it is listed by English Heritage at Grade II. English Heritage says the, “Design closely follows stations by Charles Holden for London Transport e.g. Arnos Grove and Bounds Green”, but I assume English Heritage hadn’t in this case taken too much notice of what Holden’s stations actually looked like, as the proportions are all wrong for a Holden station.

The station’s current none-too-luxurious ambience is largely a result of the station building being old and high maintenance, having been designed in an era when there were plenty of staff about to keep stations clean and well maintained. Bishopstone station is now unstaffed, and has been since the late 1980s. It’s far from unique in this regard, and reduced (or non-existent) staffing levels and attempts to reduce the cost of operating the UK railway mean that hard-to-clean older buildings get grubby surprisingly quickly. When they spring a leak, or something falls off, or plants start growing out of the brickwork, it can be expensive to sort out, so such buildings get neglected, which makes matters worse. There’s a debate to be had as to whether the best solution is:

  • to retain older station buildings even where staffing levels are such that they will never look their best, or
  • for the railway industry to spend a lot of money rectifying what has often been decades of insufficient maintenance (money that passengers will grumble is being added to the price of their tickets), or
  • to knock down a problematic old building and replace it with something modern which operators know they can keep clean and tidy for the money they actually expect to have available (which is what happened to Hastings station). At which point the heritage lobby and/or the railway enthusiast lobby will probably get upset, or
  • do something else. Like turn your old station into a palm house. Or a pub. Or a guest house.

The reduction of the track from double line to single line on the Seaford branch line hasn’t helped Bishopstone’s ambience either, with the old eastbound platform standing disused and weed-infested (an issue that could be sorted out with some weedkiller, but how could a hard-headed business justify the expense?)

But while station ambience is generally a function of the money you have to spend maintaining, cleaning, lighting and heating a station, there’s less that can be done (short of demolition) to change the shape of a building if it looks a bit scary, as Bishopstone station does. And this is where Bishopstone station’s story gets interesting. Because, curiously, the reason it looks like a submachine gun nest is that it actually is a submachine gun nest.

At the beginning of the Second World War there was considerable concern that a Nazi invasion would land on either the east or south coasts of Britain. Places like Bishopstone – a shallow beach fronting low-lying land, were considered particularly vulnerable to invasion. And so, in 1940, a pair of pillboxes were added to the roof of the then-new station, attached to either side of the octagonal central tower, resulting in a building that looks exactly like what it is – a gun emplacement. It is at least honest, unlike so many buildings. The height of the station and the angle of the pillboxes gave a good range of coverage, and had there been an invasion, this is one of the structures from where it would have been resisted.

Bishopstone station from the platform side. This is the other side of the station building from the first photo. The beach is to the left (the railway line runs parallel with the coast here) and you can see that the gun slits on the pillboxes give good coverage towards the sea. The disused eastbound platform adds to a slightly run-down feel. By Software11 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Bishopstone station from the platform side. This is the other side of the station building from the first photo. The beach is to the left (the railway line runs parallel with the coast here) and you can see that the gun slits on the pillboxes give good coverage towards the sea. The disused eastbound platform adds to a slightly run-down feel, though all credit to train operator Southern for keeping the station freshly painted. By Software11 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

As far as I can tell from the listing record, it’s the similarity to Holden’s Arnos Grove/Bounds Green London Underground stations (which suggests English Heritage hasn’t been paying much attention to what those stations look like either) and the addition of the pillboxes (!) that are the particular points of interest justifying Bishopstone station’s Grade II status. Amazing. But perhaps fitting.

If it’s a scary-looking building, it’s scary-looking for a good reason. It was designed for a different world, to scare off potential invaders. Perhaps it’s not so beastly after all.

Sources

The National Heritage List for England, entry for Bishopstone station (here)

This entry was the result of a suggestion…

A friend suggested I take a look at Bishopstone Station (thank you!) for inclusion on this blog. So I did, and I did. I like getting suggestions and recommendations. If there’s something you think I should be covering on the beauty of transport, drop me a line: see the “contact the author” tab.

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